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Joining an early stage startup, early in life

2020-10-19startups

Rosy pictures of building something like Uber, AirBnb; having a large scale, visible impact on the daily lives of people - I was so eager to build something like this that I went ahead and quit my corporate job at Barclays and joined a startup - Nektar.ai, amidst the pandemic and the job crisis that ensued. Nothing can stop me!!!

Why a startup? Try for FAANG!

The answer to this question was pretty simple for me - FAANG will be there even after 10 years (unless the management screws up real bad). I wanted to try something that very few people in my place would risk doing. Also, as the previous paragraph suggests - I want to experience the #startuplife.

Also, like many people say, “the best time to take risks in life is early, when the dependency on you is less.” Today I would disagree with this, many of the companies we hear about today weren’t made by folks in their early twenties but rather by people in their late forties or something. And if you are surrounded by the right kind of people, no risk is too great; all that is required is courage! But it will be a blog post for another time.

Why not wait for a year? You know how bad it is right now?!

The CEO of Nektar asked me this question. My manager at Barclays asked me this question. My father asked me this question. I asked myself this question.

I knew that the risk I wanted to take had to be all calculated - nothing extreme! Some question looping in my mind were:

  • What if the startup fails in just a year? - if the pandemic continues, the opportunities will be lesser for me and more for those with significant experience.
  • What if there is not time for leisure, the things I love doing apart from coding?
  • What if I get really sick and they still want me to clock in my 10 hours/day?

You know such questions cross your mind when you hear the word “startup”. I agree that many of them have a reputation for such things so I had to be choosey. Alas, they are all but worries. Having the courage to take the leap is not easy, especially when you are going venturing into unchartered territories.

I interviewed with multiple startups to join the best and the safest one. One was just starting out with me as the “First Engineer”. Another one was one of the fastest growing startups of India - Dream11, now a unicorn; and another and another.

There were 3 main reasons for switching -

  1. Learning - until I took some significant effort to learn by myself by doing some certifications or side projects, there was little incentive to become better every day; promotions and raises are fixed more or less and not significant for lower levels
  2. Technology - plain old java 8 with mysql 😐; although I did move to a more exciting DevOps role, my mind was pretty much made up by then
  3. Being service-based meaning that the impact of my work was a blur (at least for a long time)

Last but not the least - the folks who joined alongside me weren’t interested in technology or coding ONE BIT! Even some of the so called Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) seemed to lacked some key knowledge of the technology they were in charge of or working with. I thought to myself -

How could I, with so much to learn, be better than so many others? I was certainly more valuable and the company wouldn’t budge on a promotion, not even try!

Applying the “if you are one of the smartest in the room, you’re in the wrong place” concept to an undergraduate, my (supreme) ego was hurt, I had made up my mind to switch companies, come what may.

How did you find Nektar?

I came across Nektar through the HackerNews “Who is hiring (June 2020)?” post where my CTO was looking for a “Engineer #5”. I was desperate to get out of corporate and was emailing to any startup where I thought I could provide some real value.

The only checkboxes I had were:

  1. Should be product based
  2. Should be able to wear multiple hats
  3. Should have challenging and fulfilling work

I think I nailed it with these checkboxes. Every member of the startup is providing some invaluable knowledge through the experiences they have.

In retrospect…

I was a part of an innovation team at Barclays - the startup like teams in corporate and I am grateful for it; I learned a lot from the folks about the working of companies and their myriad experiences which was a valuable takeaway. Though my disappointments were with the organisation, not my team. I realised that I was becoming complacent. I did ponder about joining a FAANG or established corporation for a brief period of time, but then I mustered up the courage to go ahead and apply only to startups, and startups only.

There is a long list of things I have learned along the way - through the transition from corporate to the startup; I will list some of them below:-

  1. Scale - At Nektar, we are still building an MVP. Compare that to Barclays were any work I would be doing would be impacting the organisation on a much larger scale. I realised this after switching.
  2. Free time - At Barclays, I could easily finish my tasks and still have time for activities like reading books, playing video games, and watching tv shows. At Nektar, I have begun to understand the amount of things yet to be done and it seems to be never ending.
  3. Bonds - I think that one reason why many people don’t switch companies easily is because they become too comfortable with the people around. With my coworkers and friends in Barclays, it all seemed like a big happy family. But I really wanted to take the leap ahead. You don’t have to “burn all bridges and move ahead,” you can join a new family without leaving the old one too.
  4. Processes - Barclays being a corporate company had a lot of processes in place. The developer there is protected by the playbook. You follow it and nothing can go wrong, and if something does, it’s not your fault ideally. You don’t need to worry about the underlying tech, the upstream impact and the downstream impact of your work - it is abstract; I don’t like this. On the other hand, in Nektar there are no set processes, being so early stage, nothing is abstracted. You are in charge!
  5. Domain Knowledge - It is the most essential thing for a developer if he/she wants to create value for the organisation. It might be uninteresting in the learning phase, but essential - how did you even think of doing anything without knowing what you have to do to provide value for the customer? In Barclays, it took me roughly 4 months to get the whole banking domain and my impact on the organisation. In Nektar, it was all I was doing the first whole week.

I know there are a lot more items which I can add and these are the most important ones. I am happy to understand a lot of things now which I was blind or turned a deaf ear to, previously; and have probably become a little smarter and little more mature - both professionally and personally.

Conclusion

If you really want to learn a 100 million new things, if you are young and enthusiastic about building stuff and seeing stuff being built, if you have an entrepreneurial spirit within you - join a startup, don’t worry about the pay or the society!